Taking the Next Step: Matt Ryan Projections for 2009

Is Matt Ryan really all he’s cracked up to be this season?

I wasn’t much of a believer in the 2008 class of NFL quarterbacks. I even doubted that Matt Ryan would make it off the board among the top five picks, but I am sure the Falcons are glad they didn’t feel the same way. Ryan blossomed in his rookie season and drew comparisons to Peyton Manning by year’s end. Going into 2009, he’s got an enhanced set of weapons with Tony Gonzalez now in Atlanta and plenty of opportunity.

The obvious improvements in his game and the Falcons as a team have caused many fantasy football pros to raise him up as one of the future quarterback icons, and now drafters are taking him as a late QB1 selection — or sometimes far earlier than they should — expecting him to be a starting quality fantasy quarterback this year.

While there’s no denying that his rookie season was impressive, it’s hard for me to justify taking Matt Ryan as a starting fantasy quarterback with just one year under his belt and few multiple touchdown games to his name.

Tony Gonzalez’s late-season surge in Kansas City made him the top tight end in fantasy last season, but I don’t think he’ll carry that momentum right into his first season in Atlanta. The Falcons were a run-first team last year, and they’re not going to turn into Peyton Manning’s Colts just because they have a tight end who can catch. Atlanta will depend on Gonzalez’s blocking abilities to establish the run with Michael Turner before looking to pass with a mix of Roddy White, Gonzalez, Michael Jenkins, Harry Douglas and Jerious Norwood.

While Gonzalez will be the new “hot route” in Atlanta, a designation that made Roddy White one of the most targeted receivers in the NFL last season, the shift to Tony Gonzalez shouldn’t make the Atlanta offense significantly more productive in “hot route” situations. The move is more a knock to Roddy White’s value than anything else.

In 2008, Ryan was a marginal to poor fantasy starter. He made Roddy White look like a true fantasy stud, but Ryan’s 16 touchdowns throughout the season were not enough to keep him at the top of many lineups. The games in which he did score multiple touchdowns came against struggling defenses like the Packers, Raiders, Saints and Chargers, except for, surprisingly, one game against the Eagles where he had two touchdowns. In my mind, that makes him largely unproven facing the NFC and AFC East this season.

The one bit of reasoning that I can buy for being optimistic with Ryan’s projections is that Ryan could see a need to put more points on the board this season if the Atlanta defense, largely unspectacular last season, fails to keep games close. Turner’s power running might have to be put aside for more of a throw-happy, play-from-behind offense if that is the case, but that could also prove dangerous for Ryan and doesn’t promise that the offense will be successful.

In order to justify a QB1 role, Ryan would need to increase his touchdown totals and his yardage significantly. Despite his skills, Tony Gonzalez is unlikely to give Ryan the 75 yards and a touchdown he needs each game to do that. I see Matt Ryan finishing the year with just over 3000 yards and 20-25 touchdowns.

While Ryan makes for a promising and reliable QB2, I would not plan on taking him as your starting quarterback this season. He still has more to prove, and it would be unfair to him and his talent to expect it of him in just his second season.

Think Matt Ryan is the next big thing? As always, the comments are yours.

Forget Them Not: Ten Dynasty Running Backs for Keepers and Sleepers

We covered the quarterbacks and the wide receivers, but the position you really should watch closely heading into this year’s draft is running back. These runners have worked their way into the favor of their current coaching staffs and may stand a much greater chance of seeing the field than that guy that gets taken in the second or third round this year. Are there any Ray Rice hype machine victims in the audience? Moving on…

Jalen Parmele – Baltimore Ravens
Taken by the Dolphins in the sixth round of the 2008 draft, Parmele didn’t have a lot of press despite his productive junior and senior seasons. The Ravens plucked him off the Dolphins’ practice squad to support their running attack in the last game of the regular season against Jacksonville, and he remains with the team entering 2009. He’s comparable to Tashard Choice, who tore it up in huge games down the stretch for the Cowboys. If the RB situation in Baltimore changes and Parmele gets pack of backs, you might hear his name again in 2009.

Ryan Moats – Houston Texans
Moats grabbed headlines this offseason for his incident with a certain overly-demanding police officer, but he could be in the spotlight once again if he lands a role with the Texans running game in 2009. Steve Slaton need someone to keep him durable during the regular season, and veteran journeyman Chris Brown is more fragile and injury-prone than Slaton. Moats could see some time if injuries come into play, and he wasn’t too shabby in 2008 when needed.

Mike Hart – Indianapolis Colts
Hart didn’t have much of a debut this season as he was quickly injured once he got his chance to play for the Colts, but he still ranks very high on a lot of dynasty lists. His production at Michigan may lead some to doubt how much he has left in the tank, but his intangibles and heart for the game have led many to stand behind him. With Dominic Rhodes out of the picture, Hart could have a real shot at stepping into a big role with the Colts this season and sharing time with Joseph Addai.

Chris Henry – Tennessee Titans
Though Chris Johnson has largely stolen his thunder–or lightning, as the case may be since LenDale White owns the copyright on “thunder”–Henry still has a chance to play a part for the Titans. If anything were to happen to White, he’s the likely candidate to step into Tennessee’s potent running attack, and he may have more chances this season if the Titans move to more of a three-back system to keep Johnson fresh and injury-free for the playoffs. Without a healthy Johnson, the Titans just didn’t look the same.

Jacob Hester – San Diego Chargers
With LaDainian Tomlinson approaching his golden years, many folks are looking for the Chargers to draft a running back this season to help Darren Sproles. But do they really need someone else? Given the production of fullbacks turned running backs like Peyton Hillis, Hester might be an adequate partner in the running game to support Sproles and Tomlinson as L.T. approaches the end of his career. We’ll see if the Chargers think he is enough come draft day.

Danny Ware – New York Giants
With a stall of running backs that could dominate any team in the league, you’d think that the Giants would be willing to sell off some of their surplus at the position, but surprisingly, the Giants have been very protective of Ware. If the team who was okay letting Ryan Grant walk and Derrick Ward sign elsewhere likes this guy, dynasty owners have to agree. He sits just behind Jacobs on the depth chart, and he might become part of the new Earth, Wind and Fire if Jacobs needs help in the run game.

Lorenzo Booker – Philadelphia Eagles
When he was traded to the Eagles from the Dolphins, Booker was touted as the likely backup to Brian Westbrook, but despite Booker’s comparable skills, he didn’t ever find his way onto the field last season. With Westbrook’s contract extended and Correll Buckhalter going over to the Broncos in free agency, Booker could be the guy we thought he was going to be in 2009. Then again, the Eagles could get greedy and take another running back in the draft to support Westbrook.

Justin Forsett – Seattle Seahawks
The Seahawks drafted Forsett in the seventh round of the draft only to waive him early in the 2008 season. After a short stay with the Indianapolis Colts, Forsett was again waived and returned to the Seahawks practice squad to sign as the punt specialist. Considering the lack of depth at running back on Seattle’s current roster, he could play a larger role than expected this season if the injury plague in Seattle moves from the wide receivers to the running backs. Forsett scored 15 touchdowns in his final season at Cal after sitting behind J.J. Arrington and Marshawn Lynch for most of his time there.

Kregg Lumpkin – Green Bay Packers
With a name like that, what else could you be but a running back? Lumpkin started to gain some ground on the Green Bay depth chart just before he injured his hamstring early last season. With Ryan Grant looking more human and less like the hero he was in 2007, it’s possible the Packers give guys like Lumpkin and Brandon Jackson more opportunities in 2009. I don’t expect Grant to lose his job, but if Lumpkin gave it his all, he might jump over Jackson on the depth chart.

BenJarvus Green-Ellis – New England Patriots
The man we so lovingly called “Law Firm” in 2008 is likely to find himself back on the sidelines as we enter the 2009 season, but while he may be gone, he should not be forgotten. Green-Ellis, like many other Patriot backs, was successful when given the opportunity. If Laurence Maroney fails again this season, which is likely, Green-Ellis might even get another chance to work his way into the rotation for Bill Belichick.

Six Well-Received Dynasty Wide Receivers for 2009 Sleepers and Keepers

We started our dynasty talk with a look at the quarterbacks on benches you may have forgotten as the NFL draft approaches, but now it’s time to refresh your memory about a few receivers that could be valuable for keeper leagues and dynasty leagues. Some even have a shot at fantasy stardom in 2009.

Demetrius Williams – Baltimore Ravens
Despite his flashes as a playmaker since joining the Ravens in 2006, Demetrius Williams hasn’t stayed healthy enough to earn his way out of the slot receiver role in Baltimore. Just as he emerged in 2009 with a 70-yard touchdown grab against the Raiders, Williams had to be shut down for surgery on a bone spur that had limited him all season. The Ravens need to get younger — and better — targets for Joe Flacco, and Williams could be the guy to stretch the field for Flacco in 2009 even if Baltimore addresses the position in the draft.

Lavelle Hawkins – Tennessee Titans
Hawkins was supposed to be the answer to Tennessee fans’ prayers when he was drafted last season even though he wasn’t a first-round receiver selection as many had hoped. Though he outshined college teammate DeSean Jackson in the stats department during his last season at California, he spent his rookie season in the shadows while Jackson played his way into a starting role with the Eagles. To his credit, Hawkins struggled to master the Titan’s playbook with all the distractions and challenges of being a rookie in the NFL. In his second season, he’d prefer that his teammates hold the mayo. With Justin McCareins now a free agent, Hawkins could bring a much-needed infusion of young talent to the passing game for Tennessee opposite newly acquired Nate Washington or Justin Gage.

Earl Bennett – Chicago Bears
Much like Hawkins, many Chicago fans jumped aboard the Bennett train expecting him to contribute early and often in a season where Chicago had no receivers to brag about on their starting roster. Bennett must have missed the memo. In 2009, he finds himself in a very intriguing situation with his former college quarterback, Jay Cutler, in town. Cutler could easily make his favorite target from Vandy into a standout in this offense, so watch for Bennett to find his way into the third receiver role or even the No. 2 spot beside Devin Hester if he can make the jump with this offense.

Mario Manningham – New York Giants
As disappointing as his entrance to the NFL was, Manningham has done a whole lot of nothing on the Giants roster so far. The release of Plaxico Burress and departure of Amani Toomer this offseason will give each of the Giants’ young receivers a chance to climb the depth chart. With Steve Smith quickly becoming Eli Manning’s most trusted target, the Giants would love to see Manningham prove his draft stock and push Domenik Hixon, the No. 1 receiver replacement-of-the-moment. Maybe he can defy that 6 on the Wonderlic and grasp the playbook a little sooner than expected.

Davone Bess – Miami Dolphins
His troubled past in college at Oregon State didn’t stop Hawaii recruiters from picking up on Bess’ talents, and despite going undrafted, he still made the Dolphins roster in 2008. When Greg Camarillo went down with an injury, Bess filled his role as Chad Pennington’s most reliable wide receiver, and Bess finished the season with more receptions than all but two rookies, Eddie Royal and DeSean Jackson. With Camarillo returning from his injury, Bess may find himself back in the slot receiver role, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Pennington looked Bess’ way a little more often in 2009.

Mike Walker – Jacksonville Jaguars
While Matt Jones caught most of the nose candy praise and passes in 2008, David Garrard showed that he had a lot of faith in Mike Walker by looking to him to make a big play when they needed it. If Walker can stay healthy in 2009, he might be a big factor now that Jones and Jerry Porter are out of town. His only major competition for the most looks in Jacksonville is an aging Torry Holt unless the Jaguars take a receiver early in the draft.

And if crazy things happen…

Brad Smith / David Clowney – New York Jets
Without Laveranues Coles, the Jets have a hole opposite Jerricho Cotchery. Chansi Stuckey appears to be at the top of the depth chart, but Brad Smith and David Clowney are two of the lesser-known and possibly more promising wide receivers in the Jets’ arsenal. Smith has talents as both a quarterback and receiver, and Clowney sat out most of 2008 with a broken collarbone after blowing up in the preseason. If either takes hold of No. 2 spot or slot position for whichever quarterback steps into the pocket for the Jets, they stand a chance of becoming a household name. Clowney, in my opinion, is currently the more intriguing of the two.

Early Doucet – Arizona Cardinals
It would take an Anquan Boldin trade for Doucet to become relevant, but the coaching staff praised him and his ability after drafting him just last year. Even though Steve Breaston is ahead of him on the depth chart, it’s a proven fact that the Cardinals passing game produces numbers for everyone who gets involved. Watch for Doucet to earn his spot as the No. 3 receiver if any draft-day deals move Boldin from the sunny desert of Arizona.

Steve Johnson – Buffalo Bills
Unfortunately for Steve, who looked promising in the short time he played near the end of 2008, the Terrell Owens signing in Buffalo limits his potential for at least the 2009 season. Second-round selection James Hardy still sits ahead of him on the Bills’ depth chart, and Johnson will be lucky to lock down the fifth receiver spot behind Lee Evans, Owens, Josh Reed and Hardy if Roscoe Parrish stays in Buffalo. He’s still worth keeping an eye on, but it would take some roster moves for Johnson to make an impact anytime soon.

A Six-pack of Quarterbacks to Remember in 2009 for Dynasty Teams, Keepers and Sleepers

As the NFL draft approaches, we all get a little antsy for football season to start. We start salivating over the latest and greatest rookie talent and their the flashy 40-yard dash times, and we forget about all the players from last year’s draft, the ones we talked up to our buddies every Saturday watching college football, the guys that were going to make our fantasy team as a sleeper pick or a bench-rider on our dynasty squad.

Before you start dropping them on your team to pick up the Chris “Beanie” Wells of the world, maybe you should consider all those good times you still might have…

Now is not the time to forget the players that everyone loved last offseason. They’re still on NFL rosters, and some of them are moving ever closer to an impact role. Even though they may look like last year’s Sports Illustrated Swimsuit cover — and hey, that’s not too bad looking — you shouldn’t stop watching them.

Before you clear a spot for Matthew Stafford, consider these quarterbacks who could be impact players in 2009 or 2010.

Chad Henne – Miami Dolphins
While not flashy, Henne has the admiration of the Bill Parcells-led Dolphins, and as soon as Chad Pennington decides to get away from the sticky beach weather in Florida or Parcells decides he needs to take a seat on the bench, Henne is the favorite to be the starting quarterback. Current rumors have him set to go in 2010. One can only hope the Dolphins have developed receivers by then.

Brett Ratliff – New York Jets
Kellen Clemens isn’t scaring anyone in New York except his agent — a 59.3 quarterback rating will do that. The pressure of being an NFL starting quarterback didn’t suit him too well when he got the chance pre-Favre, and the door is standing open for Brett Ratliff to jump into a starting job. Wouldn’t it be fitting for both starting quarterbacks who replace Brett Favre to come from Chico and Butte? [See Rodgers, Aaron]

Matt Moore – Carolina Panthers
One of the most promising backup quarterbacks in the game, Moore showed poise when he took the field in relief of Jake Delhomme and David Carr in 2007. He sits behind Jake Delhomme this season with no Carr in sight. Delhomme could easily lose his job in 2009 if he is as sloppy with the football as he was in his playoff game against the Cardinals, and the Panthers, while supporting him as the starter, haven’t moved to extend his contract yet. All eyes are on Moore to steal the show — as long as the Panthers don’t surprise us in the draft.

Josh Johnson – Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Johnson has the skills and the intangibles to match. Best of all, the opportunity is there as the Bucs roll into this season with Luke McCown and Byron Leftwich competing for the starting job. Footballguys.com’s The Audible brought Johnson to my attention before the 2008 draft, and those guys know their rookies. Before being drafted, Johnson was named the offensive MVP of the 2008 East-West Shrine Game and excelled at the NFL Combine, where he recorded the best 40-yard dash (4.55), broad jump and vertical jump among quarterbacks. If Leftwich struggles in the starting role in 2009, Johnson could come along quickly.

You don’t have to be young to be worth watching this season — so says the cougar motto — but these potential studs could find new life depending on where they rank after training camps.

Sage Rosenfels – Minnesota Vikings
Rosenfels might be overlooked since he’s no new kid on the block, but he can still play with the best of them as long as a helicopter spin is involved. Rosenfels was considered one of the best backups in the league with the Houston Texans, and his arm gave the team plenty of chances to win. Captain Turnover’s move to the Vikings this offseason will probably allow him to win the starting job over Tarvaris Jackson, and his daring feats with the football might be just what Bernard Berrian and Sidney Rice need to be productive.

Vince Young – Tennessee Titans
Kerry Collins may be the Susan Boyle of the NFL, but he can’t last forever. Despite his strong showing in 2008, the Titans are unlikely to get across the hump in the AFC unless they somehow unleash the true talents of Vince Young. Whether he gets his chance with the Titans as a starter or specialty weapon or he moves to another team, VY will be an impact player if he regains the confidence he had at Texas. With the right coaching, Young should be productive when combined with some emerging receivers. While you might take him off your draft board for now, don’t let him stray too far.

And don’t forget…

In the incubator: Dennis Dixon (Pittsburgh Steelers), Kevin Kolb (Philadelphia Eagles), Colt Brennan (Washington Redskins), Matt Leinart (Arizona Cardinals)

[H/T and thanks to @kennethlim and @AboveAverageJoe for suggesting additional QBs]